Thursday, October 21, 2010

Some Preliminaries: Politics has Consequences

This is the last of these before I start zeroing in on some topics more particular to the US. 

Something that strikes me a great deal with political discussions is how often it takes the frame of either simple tribalism, liberals are socialists vs conservatives are theocrats for example, or how often it is treated as simply some sort of complete abstraction where individuals struggle over a distribution of resources with little in the way of real world consequences to specific distributions beyond one group getting stronger and another weaker.

While I understand the potential usefulness of these attitudes towards rallying support or analysis (respectively) I think it is critical to remember that many policies have powerful long run impacts.  There are a few that no doubt are purely distributional, these policies will distribute resources among various groups and reflect particular visions of society without any society-wide consequences beyond this distribution.

These policies are the exception.  At the end of most of them, there may be a child later suffering long term unemployment due to insufficient nourishment or medical care early in life leading to long term deficiencies, slower economic growth leaving skilled people unemployed with broken families as a result, and on a broader level, mass unrest, political collapse, and war.  These aren't often the consequences of a single decision but rather a series of them.  Regarding many of our political debates, in the longer run one viewpoint, or a small handful, is correct, the rest are wrong.  If we follow the wrong policies we will not be able to compete with nations pursuing the correct ones.  We will fall behind, our standard of living will fall, and the consequences will eventually be huge.

This is why it is critical to step outside of partisanship and attempt to ask what our problems really are and how do we fix them.  Sticking to political principles or a belief in how society should work is not enough, while I have the right, and perhaps the duty, to sacrifice my own success for deeper principles or beliefs I do not have the same right to apply this thinking to others through the political system.  There is no justice in picking a principled course of action that results in harm, or even death, to others.  It is rare to have a political decision that will not result in harm to someone; this gives us an obligation to think about the long term consequences of our actions to seek to minimize the extent to which the actions we take will cause this harm to others, which is something we have no right to do.  Of course, at this level inaction is the same as action, failing to pursue a policy that would mitigate this harm imposes the same moral obligation on us that taking an action that causes would.  Which is why it is so important not to prove any of our ideas right but to instead focus on getting the right idea, no matter how much this contradicts our existing beliefs.


  1. Yes, but is not pragmatism just another form of political ideology?

    At least, that's a response I've gotten at least once when advocating pragmatism as you have here.

  2. G,

    To some extent that's a valid critique but the problem is that it rapidly devolves into some form of relativism. It's a great critique in an ivory tower academic environment but reducing pragmatism to just another ideology quickly makes governance impossible.

    This is why I push the idea of survival so hard as an objective quality for assessing civilizations and reject squishier notions such as society is supposed to serve the people or make people happy. I have real doubts that anything but small scale tribal societies are really compatible with the basic instincts of the human animal, however this form of society can't survive competition with other forms of social organization rendering the point moot. This is where any political philosophy but pragmatism ends up, even if that philosophy is in some way ultimately more congenial to the human animal, the fact of the matter is it can't survive competition with the pragmatic philosophy. So while these arguments may in some way reach the Truth, with a capital T, about human society, these sorts of arguments are the political philosophy version of the theological argumentation over how many angles can dance on the head of the pin. Great for late night political discussions, lousy for actually trying to get at issues.

    In the end, what I want to know is how we can attract immigrants, get kids well-nourished, let people thrive, keep our society safe, create economic opportunities, create social mobility, allow people to travel, etc. While it's possible to argue over theoretical points about how society should work, the truth is that we're still so very ignorant that it's simple hubris to think we can create a theoretical construct that will allow us to govern well. We have to start from what seems to work, copy things we see others doing that seem to work, and stop doing things that don't seem to be working and we have to measure these things according to the concrete facts on the ground we can actually wrap our heads around. Later generations may shake our heads at the primitiveness of these approaches but I see absolutely no evidence that we have yet attained enough knowledge to use ideology or theory as a starting point. We're no where near close to that point.

  3. Tz,

    Well said; thanks for the reply. :-)